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On July 12th, the Massachusetts Legislature recessed the Constitutional Convention without taking up H. 4617, a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. The Senate and House met in joint session for four hours, getting through half the bills on the agenda before Senator Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston) moved to recess until Nov. 9, two days after the general election. Her motion carried 100-91 (see vote tally at www.macathconf.org). Though the delay is disappointing and worrisome, several positives command attention. The marriage amendment is still alive, its supporters have framed the debate, we continue to have at least 50 legislators willing to move the amendment forward if given the cahance, the other side is on the defensive, and we have the opportunity to expand already strong grassroots efforts. Here are the details on what supporters of the amendment have gained and where we go from here. Supporters should start by writing their legislators in response to their votes on July 12 and ask that a vote be taken on Nov. 9 of this year.
What we have gained
It is easy to see all the hurdles we face. The legislative leadership and a majority of the members oppose sending the marriage amendment to the voters. Legislators on our side lack control of the parliamentary process. There is precedent for using parliamentary maneuvers to kill citizen petitions contrary to constitutional requirements. The opposing lobby is strong. The task of keeping the grassroots energized is gargantuan. We are tempted to think that no matter what we do, the odds of success in such a political environment are just too low. Seen in this light, the vote to delay might appear as just another precursor of a legislative ditching.
Here are the counterbalancing signals. The leadership could have “pulled a Birmingham” by orchestrating a motion to close down the convention for good on July 12 without taking a vote like then-Senate President Tom Birmingham accomplished a few years ago, but did not. The amendment is still alive.
This suggests that those opposing the amendment could not convince the leadership and enough legislators to engage in parliamentary trickery to kill the amendment by adjourning the convention now. In fact, 33 of the 91 legislators voting against the recess motion are either non-committal about or on record as opposing the amendment itself. Many legislators on both sides of the recess vote told the press that ultimately they wanted the direct opportunity to vote on the amendment. In addition, according to several media reports, Senate President Robert Travaglini has advised legislators that the amendment will be brought to a vote this year. For those hoping to kill the amendment by permanently avoiding such a vote, a delay was all they could muster. This signals that all your phone calls, letters and emails are having an impact.
Ed Saunders, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, told The Boston Globe after the recess, “The people need to turn their attention to their reps and senators to make sure the vote gets taken in November. It was a lengthy agenda [for the Constitutional Convention], and they got through half of the items. I was encouraged by the Senate president’s statement that there will be a vote. We have to wait for that opportunity.”
Those supporting the amendment have succeeded in framing the debate, making it more difficult for legislators to avoid taking a stand. The calls of the marriage coalition to “let the people vote” and for “no trickery” have been echoed in the editorial pages of The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Worcester Telegram, Springfield Republican, and several other daily newspapers, all of which have editorialized against ducking a vote. As the Globe editors put it, the state constitution requires legislators to vote on proposed amendments, and “scuttl[ing] the [marriage] amendment by ignoring the constitution’s own mandate and ducking a vote altogether … would be a mistake, and short-sighted. Legislators should not violate the constitution in order to protect it.”
This has put the opponents on the defensive. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Carisa Cunningham, spokesperson for Boston-based Gays and Lesbians Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), said that “Politically, it is very difficult to fight this very simple idea of ‘Let the people vote,’ which is the slogan the other side is marketing.” She complained that by characterizing the con-con debate as one for or against democracy, the amendment’s backers had staged a “strategic coup.”
Where we go from here — what you need to do
According to reports in Bay Windows, the Boston-based gay and lesbian newspaper, the opponents to H. 4617 could not get the leadership to agree to killing the amendment, and failed to secure a longer delay into December. The same reports indicated that the leadership told the opponents that they have until November to try to pry away some of the 50 supporters of the amendment. The possibility of erosion is worrisome, but the four-month delay gives supporters of the amendment the same opportunity to increase already strong grassroots efforts.
We need to continue to encourage those legislators who support sending the amendment to the people. Let them know how much you appreciate their courage. And we need to remind those who support same-sex marriage that the people are sovereign in a democracy, and deserve a vote. Do not assume that legislators who voted to recess are locked into denying a vote altogether. Thank the legislators who voted not to recess, even if they are on record as opposing the amendment.
The Massachusetts Catholic Conference (macathconf.org), working with VoteOnMarriage.org, the marriage amendment’s sponsor, along with Catholic Citizenship (Catholicvote.org), will keep everyone apprised of grassroots plans to be implemented during this period. If you have not already signed up for e-mail alerts from these groups, please do so in order to stay abreast of developments. The delay is agonizing, but the amendment is still alive, and we must take advantage of the support in the press and in the community for democracy and against trickery. If you have any questions, contact the staff at the Massachusetts Catholic Conference at 617-367-6060 or firstname.lastname@example.org.